Only 30 minutes away from Palermo airport the island of Pantelleria appears through the window of our plane, basking in the golden afternoon light. By the time we arrive at Sikelia the sun is about to set, projecting long shadows of palm trees over butter-yellow walls to create the feeling of warmth that will characterise our stay. We quickly climb to the rooftop restaurant for an aperitivo and savour the view of the sun sinking over Tunisia, which lies closer to the island than Sicily and explains the Arab and African influences that we go on to encounter during our time here. Sikelia itself is a converted dammuso, one of the island’s traditional stone houses, originally built to resist the strong winds that normally blow in this part of the Mediterranean Sea. Previously a private residence, it began its new life as a hotel under the ownership of Giulia Pazienza Gelmetti, a former basketball player, who was charmed by its alcoves and arches. Today its 20 suites are stuffed with contemporary paintings, furniture and curios created by the artist Gennaro Avallone, inspired by Pantelleria’s ancient legacy of pottery, bronze and glass. Having explored Sikelia’s many corners we jump into the car the next day eager to discover this mysterious volcanic island, which has a perimeter of only 50km. We soon understand why the rental company gave us such a small car – the roads are narrow, forcing us to slow down as we squeeze along their twists and turns. This ends up being a blessing as there’s lots to take in. We are lucky to have arrived on the island during vendemmia, the time of the year when the grapes are ready to harvest. We stop at the roadside and exchange a few words with the pickers, who kindly hand us a bunch of zibibbo grapes to sample. We want to visit the rock formation Arco Dell’elefante so we drive east until the shape of an elephant’s head, trunk dunked into the sea, appears in front of us. Having worked up an appetite after a quick swim, we drive on to Il Principe e Il Pirata, a cosy osteria where we feast on grilled amberjack and vegetables.
We journey on to Punta Spadillo Lighthouse, perched on top of an old lava flow. During bad weather it’s reportedly a dramatic spot to stand and watch the huge waves crashing into the cliffs. With one hour left before sunset we drive to Gadir to relax in the hot springs by the sea and enjoy one of the most beautiful moonrises we have ever witnessed. The following morning affords us some time to spend by the pool at Sikelia before we head off to visit Specchio di Venere lake, located in the crater of an old volcano. We swim in its crystalline blue waters and taste granita catanese (almond sherbet with an espresso shot) for the first time. For lunch we discover Kayà Kayà, a bar in Porto di Scauri, where you can rent a boat if you’re feeling adventurous. We prefer to drive to the top of the highest mountain on Pantelleria, Montagna Grande, to get a proper sense of the island’s contours. On our final evening we’re invited for dinner at Coste Ghirlanda, a winery belonging to Sikelia’s owners consisting of a few dammusi surrounded by beautiful vineyards. We share a table with the rest of Sikelia’s guests and enjoy a tasting menu and wine pairing. Jardinu and silenzio are wines produced from the zibibbo grape variety – they are fresh, fruity yet dry, reminding us of our earlier encounter with the local grape-pickers. We end the night, and our short visit to this idyllic island, with a cream cannoli dessert and some passito dessert wine, also produced at Coste Ghirlanda – a timely reminder that at Sikelia, life truly tastes sweet.
Pictures by me
Words by Coke Bartrina
Published at Suitcase mag vol 21